BOOK REVIEW / Terror in the underground: 'Limestone and Clay' - Lesley Glaister: Secker, 8.99

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The Independent Culture
LESLEY GLAISTER's first three novels were written with a strength and balance that displayed a rare faculty for handling both animate and inanimate worlds. In Limestone and Clay these worlds collide. The word clay has here a double meaning. Nadia is a sculptor; she works in clay, which is set in apposition to the limestone through which her lover, Simon, crawls while caving. Clay also stands for weak human flesh, the physical element of new life. Nadia and Simon very much want a child, but she repeatedly miscarries. The hopeless tact that invades a couple in such circumstances leaks into Glaister's account of Simon and Nadia's domestic life.

Simon had a short affair with Celia before falling for Nadia. Celia is married to Dan; she becomes pregnant, so cannot accompany Simon on a caving expedition. A friend of Simon's died on this route under the earth, and Simon, who is superstitious in that he denies all superstition, wants to exorcise this sadness. These are themes loaded with metaphor. In sharing them between super-rational Simon and Nadia, who is more tempted by the occult, Glaister ensures their weight. Her tone is sufficiently confident to wear its poetic diction with a grasp of exigency in a combination rarely found outside poetry itself.

Nadia befriends Iris, the fortune-teller who lives upstairs with Darling, her filthy pet crow. Iris foresees something of the events that induce Nadia almost to commit a drunken kidnap and Simon perhaps to die. The novel is gruesomely convincing about the horror in small things: rational Simon commits one irrational act, and before the end of the book everyone suffers for it.

Each chapter is headed with a single word: one such is 'Moonmilk', the silvery dust, Glaister tells us, that clings to cavers. She has found another meaning: the milk that flows from a woman desperate for a child. This longing drives Nadia mad in a moorland pub by night while under the moor Simon is pursuing his solitary course. This robust book takes lost life as its theme; Glaister's rounded gift is to show life as it is found.